At Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI), we believe that good governance is essential to living out the values of openness, transparency, and accountability, centring the interests of the community in the work of organizations acting on their behalf.

It’s why we’ve spent so much effort on our own governance structures at IOI and continue to advocate for deeper and more nuanced conversations about governance as a means to centre the interests of the community in the operation of open infrastructure services.

As we prototype mechanisms to assess the governance of open infrastructure services and scrutinize and evolve our own governance structures and practices, we realize the need to bring additional clarity to this work, for ourselves and other organizations in the open research, scholarly communications, and nonprofit space by asking some essential questions about governance, including: what is good governance, and what is the evidence for why it is important?

To address these questions and stimulate further conversations and reflections around current governance practices in this space, we reviewed literature and looked into governance models in two different but related contexts: scholarly communication and open research infrastructure; and nonprofit management. Primarily, we aimed to:

  • define key terms and discussion of how governance is best understood;
  • provide an overview of governance practices and models in the scholarly communication and nonprofit spaces;
  • establish a working definition and a set of essential components for good governance and the benefits of having good governance in place; and
  • investigate the consequences of having inadequate or incomplete governance structures in place.

Today, we share the first report from this work – a literature review on governance in nonprofit organizations. This review aims to explore the importance of governance within a nonprofit organization, the key features commonly ascribed to effective governance, and the impact of governance on the operations of a nonprofit organization as represented in a selection of the available scholarly literature from the nonprofit management and evaluation discipline.

Our key takeaways:

  1. Good governance is built on transparency and accountability. Transparency and accountability breed trust, and trust is essential for any nonprofit organization to survive. The loss of trust, for any reason, is an existential threat to the organization and is something effective governance can help prevent when well constituted and supported.
  2. The community interests should be the principal concern of the organization. Centring the interests and needs of the community to be truly stakeholder governed requires more than just a user feedback form or periodic community meetings. The community should be empowered within the organization through the establishment of meaningful structures through which they can express those interests and hold the organization accountable as an agent for meeting their needs.
  3. Key governance practices that make a nonprofit trustworthy include:
    • publicly disclosing governing practices, policies, and procedures and clearly stating these to internal and external stakeholders;
    • making regular public disclosure of financial statements and annual reports; and
    • establishing effective bi-directional communication channels to carry out meaningful conversations with stakeholders.
  4. There is no one right way to structure governance for a nonprofit organization. We have explored three models in depth in the review. The choice of a suitable model depends on internal factors (e.g. the size and experience of the board, the executive, and staff) and the external environment (e.g. the level of complexity or uncertainty). These internal factors and external environmental considerations change over time and the governance structures should be adaptable to meet the current and anticipated future needs without overburdening the organization.
  5. To realize the value of governance, the internal and external factors must all be considered for how they help the organization achieve its mission and vision. Organizational leadership needs to honestly acknowledge their situation, communicate their intentions, and then hold themselves accountable to their stakeholders to abide by the governance practices they put in place.

This review illustrates the importance of good governance. Funders, budget holders, and other supporters of open infrastructure should support the building and evolution of good governance structures and practices for open infrastructure organizations such that they can manage diverse community and stakeholder interests and fulfil their needs in a reliable, consistent, and sustainable way. It’s how we realize a robust, inclusive, and diverse infrastructure of open tools and technologies that can become the default in research.

We would like to thank Elizabeth Searing (UT Dallas) and Allison Russell (UT Dallas) for their early feedback on this work.

We welcome all questions, comments, and feedback on this work – please email us at research [at] investinopen [dot] org.

Next week, we will share our next piece in this series – investigating governance models in scholarly communication and open research and exploring a framework for essential components of community governance. Stay tuned!

Social media image by Jonathan Ybema on Unsplash.

Posted by Emmy Tsang